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What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are sugar molecules. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of three main nutrients found in foods and drinks.
Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose. Glucose, or blood sugar, is the main source of energy for your body's cells, tissues, and organs. Glucose can be used immediately or stored in the liver and muscles for later use.
What are the different types of carbohydrates?
There are three main types of carbohydrates:
- Sugars. They are also called simple carbohydrates because they are in the most basic form. They can be added to foods, such as the sugar in candy, desserts, processed foods, and regular soda. They also include the kinds of sugar that are found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and milk.
- Starches. They are complex carbohydrates, which are made of lots of simple sugars strung together. Your body needs to break starches down into sugars to use them for energy. Starches include bread, cereal, and pasta. They also include certain vegetables, like potatoes, peas, and corn.
- Fiber. It is also a complex carbohydrate. Your body cannot break down most fibers, so eating foods with fiber can help you feel full and make you less likely to overeat. Diets high in fiber have other health benefits. They may help prevent stomach or intestinal problems, such as constipation. They may also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar. Fiber is found in many foods that come from plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains.
Which foods have carbohydrates?
Common foods with carbohydrates include:
- Grains, such as bread, noodles, pasta, crackers, cereals, and rice
- Fruits, such as apples, bananas, berries, mangoes, melons, and oranges
- Dairy products, such as milk and yogurt
- Legumes, including dried beans, lentils, and peas
- Snack foods and sweets, such as cakes, cookies, candy, and other desserts
- Juices, regular sodas, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks that contain sugar
- Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, and peas
Some foods don't have a lot of carbohydrates, such as meat, fish, poultry, some types of cheese, nuts, and oils.
Which types of carbohydrates should I eat?
You do need to eat some carbohydrates to give your body energy. But it's important to eat the right kinds of carbohydrates for your health:
- When eating grains, choose mostly whole grains and not refined grains:
- Whole grains are foods like whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole cornmeal, and oatmeal. They offer lots of nutrients that your body needs, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. To figure out whether a product has a lot of whole grain, check the ingredients list on the package and see if a whole grain is one of the first few items listed.
- Refined grains are foods that have had some parts of the grains removed. This also removes some of the nutrients that are good for your health.
- Eat foods with lots of fiber. The Nutrition Facts labels on the back of food packages tells you how much fiber a product has.
- Try to avoid foods that have a lot of added sugar. These foods can have many calories but not much nutrition. Eating too much added sugar raises your blood sugar and can make you gain weight. You can tell if a food or drink has added sugars by looking at the Nutrition Facts label on the back of the food package. It tells you how much total sugar and added sugar is in that food or drink.
How many carbohydrates should I eat?
There is no one-size-fits-all amount of carbohydrates that people should eat. This amount can vary, depending on factors such as your age, sex, health, and whether or not you are trying to lose or gain weight. On average, people should get 45 to 65% of their calories from carbohydrates every day. On the Nutrition Facts labels, the Daily Value for total carbohydrates is 275 g per day. This is based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Your Daily Value may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs and health.
Is it safe to eat a low-carb diet?
Some people go on a low-carb diet to try to lose weight. This usually means eating between 25 g and 150 g of carbs each day. This kind of diet can be safe, but you should talk to your health care provider before starting it. One problem with low-carb diets is that they can limit the amount of fiber you get each day. They can also be hard to stay on for the long term.
- Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit into a Healthy Diet (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer (National Cancer Institute) Also in Spanish
- Low-Carb Diet: Could It Help You Lose Weight? (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Nutrition and Healthy Eating (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- Carbohydrates and Diabetes (For Parents) (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Rethink Your Drink (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Also in Spanish
- Sweet Stuff: How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health (National Institutes of Health)
- Whole Grains: Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research) Also in Spanish
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Dietary Carbohydrates (National Institutes of Health)
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Sweetening Agents (National Institutes of Health)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
- Allergies and Hyperactivity (and sugar) (American Academy of Pediatrics) Also in Spanish
- Carbohydrates, Sugar, and Your Child (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Learning about Carbohydrates (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Carbohydrates (Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health)
- Carbohydrates (Boston Children's Hospital) Also in Spanish
- Carbohydrates and Diabetes (Nemours Foundation) Also in Spanish
- Calorie count - sodas and energy drinks (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Carbohydrates (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Counting carbohydrates (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Sweetened beverages (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Sweeteners - sugar substitutes (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish